Understanding Fentanyl Risks, Effects, and the Importance of Awareness

Fentanyl is a prescription opioid medication that is sold under names such as Duragesic, Actiq, Abstral, Fentora, Onsolis, and Sublimaze. However, it is also made and used illegally and is one of the most widely abused drugs in the United States.

Please continue reading to learn more about the health effects and risks of fentanyl abuse. This article will help you learn what signs to look for and how to help a loved one if you suspect potential addiction behaviors.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that belongs to the same group of drugs as morphine. But fentanyl is 50-100 times stronger than morphine. A 0.1-mg dose of fentanyl can result in the same pain control as a 10-mg dose of morphine. Prescription fentanyl is used to treat severe pain, such as postsurgical pain. It is also used to treat chronic pain in opioid-tolerant patients. Fentanyl is available as lozenges, buccal tablets, sublingual tablets, patches, and shots for medically indicated uses.

Unfortunately, synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, are some of the most abused drugs in the United States. Illegal fentanyl is sold in the form of a powder, made into pills resembling prescription opioids, and supplied as eye droppers and nasal sprays.

The Alarming Rise of Fentanyl Addiction

The opioid epidemic started in the United States in the 1990s with the overprescription of opioid pain medications. More recently, the influx of cheap fentanyl and other synthetic opioids onto the streets of America by foreign drug cartels has fueled an alarming rise in fentanyl addiction.

Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid. It takes a very small amount of this drug to produce a high, making it a cheap but dangerous additive to other drugs. Drug dealers often mix fentanyl with other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and methamphetamine to increase their potency. People taking these drugs may be unaware that they contain fentanyl as an additive, putting them at risk of an overdose.

Drug overdose deaths involving opioids have been climbing steadily in the US over the last decade. More than 80,000 overdose deaths were attributed to opioids in 2021, up from around 20,000 in 2010. In other words, more than 1,500 Americans die every week from the ill effects of taking some type of opioid, mainly fentanyl.

Fentanyl addiction can affect people of all ages and genders. But certain demographics are more severely affected. Studies have found that the fatality rate from illegal fentanyl use among Black males is 9 times higher compared to White males. The CDC reports that synthetic opioid abuse is rising among Blacks and Hispanics, particularly Blacks aged 45-64 years in large metro areas.

Identifying Fentanyl Addiction

Recognizing fentanyl abuse and addiction in a loved one is a vital step towards seeking appropriate help and support. Here are some signs and symptoms of fentanyl abuse and addiction:

Physical Signs and Symptoms of Fentanyl Abuse:

  • Drowsiness or Sedation: Fentanyl can make a person excessively drowsy or sedated, causing them to nod off frequently during conversations or activities.
  • Slurred Speech: Using fentanyl can affect a person’s speech, making it slurred or difficult to understand, like someone who is intoxicated.
  • Constricted Pupils: The pupils of the eyes can become very small, even in dim lighting, in people who are using fentanyl.
  • Shallow Breathing: Breathing can become slow and shallow and may even stop for short periods of time if a person uses high doses of fentanyl.

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms:

  • Isolation: Individuals abusing fentanyl often withdraw from social activities and relationships, preferring to spend time alone or with others who also use drugs.
  • Neglecting Responsibilities: People with a fentanyl addiction may neglect work, school, and family responsibilities to obtain and use fentanyl.
  • Lying or Deception: Those battling addiction frequently lie about their drug use or whereabouts to hide the extent of their addiction.
  • Financial Problems: Fentanyl addiction is expensive and often causes affected individuals to borrow money, steal, or engage in illegal activities to support their drug habit.
  • Falling grades: Fentanyl users frequently have an unexplained drop in school or work performance because of the large amount of time spent on obtaining and using the drug.

Psychological Signs and Symptoms:

  • Mood Swings: Fentanyl abuse can lead to erratic moods, ranging from euphoria, mellowness, and relaxation to confusion, irritability, and agitation.
  • Anxiety, Paranoia, and Delusions: Some people experience heightened anxiety, delusions, or paranoia, especially during periods of withdrawal when they are unable to access fentanyl.
  • Depression: Prolonged fentanyl use can contribute to feelings of depression and hopelessness, especially when the effects of the drug wear off.

Typical Scenarios Leading to Fentanyl Addiction

Here are some typical scenarios that can lead to fentanyl abuse and addiction:

Sarah, a college student, has been struggling with chronic pain from a sports injury. She started using fentanyl patches prescribed by her doctor, but now finds herself taking more than the prescribed dose to cope with the pain. Her friends notice that she’s often slurring her words and nodding off during class.

John, a middle-aged professional, started using fentanyl for its euphoric and mellow effects, to cope with stress at work. Over time, he’s been neglecting his work duties and avoiding social gatherings. His family notices that he’s become increasingly secretive about his whereabouts, and there are unexplained discrepancies in his finances.

Emily, a young adult, initially obtained fentanyl from a friend and used it to cope with social anxiety. However, she now finds herself feeling anxious and paranoid even when she’s not using the drug. Her mood swings have caused a strain in her relationships and she’s begun to experience symptoms of depression.

David, a construction worker, has been using fentanyl to manage chronic pain from a workplace injury. However, he’s noticed that he needs to take more and more of the drug to achieve the same pain relief. On one occasion, he accidentally takes too much fentanyl and experiences a life-threatening overdose, narrowly surviving after emergency medical intervention.

Effects of Fentanyl on Health and Lifestyle

Fentanyl use is associated with both immediate and long-term health risks. An addiction to fentanyl also significantly impacts a person’s personal and professional life. Seeking timely professional intervention and support is essential for treating fentanyl addiction and mitigating its impact on individuals and communities.

Fentanyl Abuse Related Risks:

  • Physical Dependence: Prolonged fentanyl use can lead to both a physical and psychological dependence on the drug. Physical dependence is where a person needs the drug to function normally. They experience withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit or reduce fentanyl use and struggle to break free from addiction.
  • Tolerance: With continued use, a person may develop tolerance to fentanyl. This means, over time, they require larger doses to achieve the same effects. This escalation in dose puts them at a risk of overdose and other adverse health outcomes.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: When someone who is misusing or abusing fentanyl does not have access to the drug, they can experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, sleep problems, and intense cravings.
  • Overdose: The high potency of fentanyl puts users at risk of a drug overdose, which can occur quickly and without warning. Symptoms of a fentanyl overdose may include shallow or stopped breathing, extreme drowsiness, confusion, and unconsciousness. Without medical intervention, an overdose can be fatal.

Immediate Health Effects of Fentanyl:

  • Nausea and Vomiting: Fentanyl can cause side effects like nausea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and other health complications, particularly in people with poor dietary habits or insufficient fluid intake.
  • Dizziness and Confusion: Fentanyl can cause dizziness, confusion, and impaired cognitive function, increasing the risk of accidents, falls, and injuries, especially when operating machinery or driving a motor vehicle.
  • Respiratory depression: Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can lead to life-threatening breathing problems (respiratory depression) through its effects on the central nervous system (CNS). This risk is especially high with large doses of fentanyl and when it is mixed with other CNS depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines. Respiratory depression can result in oxygen deprivation, coma, and even death.

Long-Term Health Risks:

Prolonged fentanyl abuse can cause a wide range of health problems through the effects of this drug on the brain, heart, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body.

Effects of Fentanyl Addiction on Personal and Professional Life:

  • Relationship Strain: Fentanyl addiction can put immense strain on relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners due to lying, manipulation, mood swings, and erratic behaviors (drug-seeking behavior).
  • Financial Hardship: Supporting a fentanyl addiction can place a substantial financial burden on a drug user, leading to debt, loss of savings, and even bankruptcy. Some people with a fentanyl addiction resort to borrowing money, stealing, or engaging in illegal activities to support their habit.
  • Legal Consequences: Fentanyl abuse can lead to legal troubles, including arrests, fines, and imprisonment, especially if a person is caught in possession, distributing the drug, or driving under the influence.
  • Career Implications: Addiction can lead to decreased productivity, job loss, and damage to a person’s professional reputation, thereby jeopardizing their career. Many people with a fentanyl addiction struggle to stay employed due to poor performance, absenteeism, and disciplinary actions related to substance abuse.

How to Help Someone with Fentanyl Addiction?

To help a loved one with a fentanyl addiction, you need to approach the situation with empathy and understanding rather than anger or frustration. The goal is to set healthy boundaries, provide support, and encourage the person to seek help and make positive changes in their life. The following strategies can be used to approach and support someone struggling with a fentanyl addiction.

Educate Yourself:

Take the time to learn about fentanyl and drug addiction, including the causes, effects, and available treatment options. Understanding the nature of addiction can help you approach the situation with empathy and compassion.

Express Concern and Empathy:

Approach the individual with compassion and empathy. Express your concerns about their well-being without judgment or criticism. Use “I” statements to convey your feelings without sounding accusatory. Say things like “I’m worried about you” or “I’ve noticed changes in your behavior.”

Listen Without Judgment:

Allow the person to express themselves openly and honestly without fear of judgment. Listen actively, validate their feelings, and offer support and understanding. Avoid interrupting or dismissing their experiences, even if they seem irrational or difficult to comprehend.

Provide Emotional Support:

Be a source of emotional support and encouragement for the individual. Acknowledge their efforts and progress while offering reassurance and hope during challenging times. Let them know that they are not alone and that you are there to support them every step of the way.

Offer Practical Support:

Help the person access treatment and support services, for example, by researching treatment options, accompanying them to appointments, or assisting with logistical arrangements. Be patient and supportive throughout the process. Remember, recovery is a journey that often involves setbacks and challenges.

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Set Boundaries:

Take care of your own physical, emotional, and mental health while supporting someone with addiction. Establish clear boundaries to protect your well-being while supporting a loved one in their recovery journey. Communicate boundaries calmly but assertively, emphasizing that your support is contingent on their willingness to seek help.

Stay Connected:

Keep the lines of communication open and stay connected with the person, even if they resist or try to push you away. Let them know that you care about them and are available whenever they are ready to accept your support.

Avoid Enabling Behaviors:

Refrain from behaviors that could inadvertently support a person’s addiction, such as providing financial assistance, making excuses for their behavior, or covering up the consequences of their actions. Instead, encourage accountability and responsibility while offering support and encouragement.

Encourage Professional Help:

Addiction is a complicated mental health issue that requires professional help. Encourage the person to seek professional care from qualified healthcare professionals, addiction counselors, and support groups. Offer to assist them in finding resources and treatment options that align with their needs and preferences.

Community Awareness and Prevention Measures

Preventing fentanyl addiction requires a multifaceted approach that includes community support and engagement. Here are some strategies to encourage community support and engagement for the prevention of fentanyl addiction.

Education and Awareness:

Increased public awareness through targeted education campaigns in schools, communities, and healthcare settings can help educate people about the dangers of fentanyl and other opioids. It is important that people have access to accurate information about the risks of fentanyl use, signs of addiction, and available resources for fentanyl addiction prevention and treatment.

Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs:

Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) are used to track the prescribing and dispensing of opioids, including fentanyl. They are effective in identifying potential misuse or diversion. Healthcare providers can use the data to make informed decisions before prescribing opioids to individuals at risk of addiction.

Safe Prescribing Practices:

Safe prescribing practices among healthcare providers include screening patients for risk factors for addiction, prescribing opioids at the lowest effective dose for the shortest duration possible, and exploring alternative pain management strategies such as physical therapy, acupuncture, and non-opioid medications.

Access to Treatment and Support Services:

Individuals struggling with fentanyl addiction and other substance use disorders should have access to evidence-based treatment and support services. This includes expanded access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT), psychological counseling, peer support groups, and other recovery resources.

Harm Reduction Strategies:

Harm reduction strategies such as naloxone distribution programs, syringe exchange programs, and supervised consumption sites reduce the negative impact of drug use, such as overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases.

Youth Prevention Programs:

Programs targeting youth can help to educate them about the risks of fentanyl and other opioids, build resilience against substance use, and provide positive alternatives to drug use. These programs should be age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, and delivered in collaboration with schools, families, and community organizations.

Community Engagement and Support:

Strong social networks provide opportunities for people struggling with a fentanyl addiction to connect with others in their community. Peer support groups, community events, and recreational activities help such individuals develop coping skills and healthy relationships.

Stigma Reduction:

Communities should work to reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorders. The goal is to promote empathy, understanding, and support for people struggling with addiction. This involves encouraging open and nonjudgmental discussions about addiction in schools and workplaces to reduce stigma and improve access to care.

Policy and Legislation:

At a state and federal government level, policies and legislation that support prevention, treatment, and harm reduction efforts, including increased funding for addiction services, expanded access to MAT, and regulatory measures to curb the illicit production and distribution of fentanyl can play a vital role in reducing the impact of drug abuse.

Collaborative Partnerships:

Collaborative partnerships between government agencies, healthcare providers, law enforcement, community organizations, and other stakeholders are necessary to coordinate efforts and maximize resource utilization for preventing fentanyl addiction and supporting individuals in recovery.

Key Takeaways

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. It is available by prescription and is used to treat severe pain, but is also made and sold illegally. Fentanyl addiction in the US has been rising at an alarming rate over the last decade or so. Along with other synthetic opioids, fentanyl is the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in the country.

Being aware of the signs of fentanyl addiction and proactively seeking professional intervention are vital for the prevention, early detection, and access to treatment for fentanyl abuse and addiction.

Seeking professional help for fentanyl addiction gives a person access to specialized evidence-based treatment, including medically supervised detoxification and psychological counseling, in a structured environment.

Discover Recovery offers a range of services and holistic programs to support fentanyl addiction recovery. If someone you love is struggling with fentanyl addiction, call us today and take the first step towards a happier, healthier future for your loved one.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459275/
  2. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl
  3. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10032521/#:
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6843a3.htm
  6. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a605043.html


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